Are Flyers better after flurry of blockbuster deals?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – One word was missing from an emotional announcement by Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren on Thursday afternoon. It was a big word.


All Holmgren would say was that the Flyers were "different," and that's an interesting way to put it when you just traded your captain (Mike Richards(notes)), traded another cornerstone centerman (Jeff Carter(notes)) and signed a 31-year-old goaltender (Ilya Bryzgalov(notes)) to a contract reportedly worth $51 million over nine years.

Holmgren received a haul in return for Richards and Carter – youngsters Brayden Schenn(notes), Jakub Voracek(notes) and Wayne Simmonds(notes), plus the No. 8 and No. 68 picks in the NHL draft that runs Friday through Saturday and a second-rounder in 2012. He had depth at center and needed size on the wing. And the Flyers haven't been solid in goal since the days of Ron Hextall.

But there must be more than meets the eye here. The Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Final just last year. Their No. 1 defenseman, Chris Pronger(notes), is coming off multiple surgeries and going to be 37. They're built to win now, to get better now, not to stockpile for the future, not to be different. They traded for the rights to Bryzgalov and threw big money at him, even though he struggled in the playoffs this year, because he was the best goaltender about to hit free agency July 1. To sign him, maybe they needed to move Carter to make room under the salary cap. But Carter and Richards? They combined for 59 goals and 132 points last season.

"I am scratching my head with the rest of you guys," tweeted the Toronto Maple Leafs' Joffrey Lupul(notes), who played for the Flyers from 2007-09. (We've edited for clarity.) "I guess anyone's tradeable."

Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said: "Those are two elite players to be traded in one day, and it's a little bit unprecedented in our league."

So what happened?

The Flyers were swept in the second round by the Boston Bruins. They were drained from the previous year's run, and they were thinned by injuries. But most glaringly, they were rotating three goaltenders. Ed Snider, their 78-year-old chairman, ordered Holmgren to acquire the best goaltender he could, while watching 37-year-old Tim Thomas(notes) lead the Bruins to the Cup.

Holmgren said as soon as he acquired the rights to Bryzgalov his phone started ringing, his fellow GMs well aware that he would need to clear cap space. He had offers and options – Leafs GM Brian Burke also was in the mix, for instance – and the emergence of Claude Giroux(notes) and James van Riemsdyk(notes) was a factor.

Coach Peter Laviolette said reports of friction with Richards were "blown out of proportion."

"They said we weren't speaking to each other," Laviolette said. "That was incorrect."

But consider that Carter and Richards are best friends. They were drafted together – Carter 11th overall and Richards 24th overall in 2003. They came up in the Flyers' system together and envisioned winning the Cup together in Philadelphia someday. Both signed long-term contracts – Carter an 11-year, $58-million deal; Richards a 12-year, $69-million deal.

The fine print gave the Flyers an out. Carter's no-trade clause doesn't start until 2012-13, according to Richards' no-movement clause doesn't kick in until July 1, 2012. But while rumors swirled around Carter recently, Richards never heard his name come up once – until he heard from his agent Thursday afternoon.

"I probably wouldn't have signed the deal, actually, if I knew I was going to be traded," Richards said. "Obviously when I signed that extension, I wanted to stay in Philadelphia for the rest of my career, and that's what I envisioned until probably 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock this afternoon when I got the call."

Holmgren, who said he had brooded about the deals late into Wednesday night, choked back tears when he talked about how hard it had been to speak to Carter and Richards. He said his call with Richards was "very emotional." Richards said it was a short conversation, "one that I didn't think I was ever going to have to do."

"I love the city of Philadelphia, and I love the organization," Richards said. "It's tough to leave, but I guess you don't understand it's a business until you're traded. … It's the worst part about it. But like I said before, I'm excited to go to L.A., a new start, a fresh slate, and hopefully we have success there."

For the Jackets and Los Angeles Kings, these were win-now moves, though the fact Carter and Richards are signed so far into the future allowed the teams to give up so much of their futures to acquire them.

The Jackets have made the playoffs only once since joining the NHL in 2000 – and were swept – and they have never had an elite centerman to give the puck to right winger Rick Nash(notes), the first overall pick of the 2002 draft. So they gave up Voracek, a big 21-year-old right winger who went eighth overall in 2007, plus the No. 8 and No. 68 picks for Carter.

"Our fans have been very patient," Howson said. "It's been 10 years now, and we just had to do something that's going to make us better right now."

The Kings had reached the cusp of contention but needed help at center. GM Dean Lombardi had resisted trading Schenn, the fifth overall pick in 2009 and one of the game's top prospects. But he gave up Schenn and Simmonds, a 22-year-old right winger with size and upside, plus the 2012 second-rounder for Richards.

Having Anze Kopitar(notes) and Richards down the middle "allows us I think essentially to match up to any team in the Western Conference," Lombardi said. "I think that was a big hole, so I think we've cleaned that up today."

These were just the first moves surrounding the draft. Lombardi expects to trade Ryan Smyth(notes) within the next couple of days. Smyth has requested a trade so he can be closer to his home in Edmonton, and Lombardi is down to two teams with one of them a frontrunner. The Florida Panthers reportedly are interested in moving up from No. 3 to No. 1, so they can snatch prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and others are busy working the phones – like Burke, sighted in a hotel lobby with his tie askew and BlackBerry pressed to his ear as usual.

The Flyers still could have more work to do, too. They have to re-sign left winger Ville Leino(notes), a pending unrestricted free agent, and they should still have enough room under the cap to make another addition. They were a Cup contender with a question mark in goal before Thursday’s moves. They’re still a Cup contender after Thursday’s moves, but now they need some young players to develop up front and Bryzgalov to pay off in goal.

"I'm not going to stand here today and say we're done, because I don't know," Holmgren said. "You never know what could happen."

That's true. You never know.

Who would have thought the Flyers would trade Carter and Richards on the same day when they were supposed to be on the same team for the next decade? Who would have thought Bryzgalov, as brilliant as he has been at times, would land such a massive contract with a team that desperately needs goaltending when the Detroit Red Wings just lit him up and swept his Phoenix Coyotes? Does this sound like the solution to you?

"Well, Detroit's a pretty good team," Holmgren said. "I think they're clearly a better team than Phoenix. Goalies sometimes … Did he play great? I think even Ilya would say, 'I didn't play great.' But sometimes they have bad days, too."

If he had bad days in Phoenix, imagine if he has bad days in Philly.

Better not.

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